Azores Sights - Things to Do in Sao Miguel
If you are planning your Azores itinerary and preparing to visit to one of the islands, make sure you have plenty of space on the memory card in your camera - the natural beauty I saw on Sao Miguel island was so stunning that it was impossible to stop taking photos, and I have no reason to believe that a visit to another island in the Azores would be any different. Sao Miguel (also referred to as 'The Green Island' for its lush vegetation) is, in my opinion, the best Azores island to visit for first-timers. It's the largest of the archipelago and you will have more than enough to do here, which saves you the hassle of having to travel to a different island. I spent a week here in the month of August and that didn't feel like enough time - there are so many things to do in Sao Miguel island and so many must-see places that we didn't manage to tick everything off my extensive 'want to see' list - what we did manage to do and what will be covered in this Sao Miguel travel guide is whale watching from Ponta Delgada, hiking to Lagoa do Fogo, snorkelling on Ilheu de Vila Franca, exploring Ponta Delgada and visiting Sete Cidades, Furnas, Poça da Dona Beija Thermal Spa and Gorreana tea plantation. Before you move on to reading about the things to do on Sao Miguel in detail, here are some general tips for planning your trip to the Azores:
Anything that can be booked in advance, book it (at least if visiting the Azores in peak season - July-September). Hotels, car rent, restaurants, sights that have a limited number of people allowed - you really need to plan beforehand to make sure you get what you are after. When we were booking our trip, the vast majority of the hotels in Ponta Delgada were already full (check out my review of the hotel we ended up staying at). On arrival, it wasn't possible to rent a car as they were all taken. The restaurants that had top ratings on TripAdvisor didn't have free tables for dinner if you just turned up on the night (incidentally, if you are a foodie, I have a section on what to eat the the Azores). We wanted to visit Gruta do Carvao volcanic caves in Ponta Delgada on our last day, arrived about 15-20 minutes before the start of the tour and it was fully booked.
Even at peak season, the weather in Sao Miguel is changeable and can vary a lot between different parts of the island. It can be sunny in Ponta Delgada and raining in Sete Cidades at the same time, so best to carry a rainjacket or an umbrella with you at all times, especially if you are planning to go hiking in the Azores. A good way of checking the weather in different locations is via live webcams - however, do keep in mind that the Fogo and Sete Cidades cams are positioned at the highest points, so it's possible that the cam is completely in the clouds, but you will still be able to see from some or all viewing platforms.
That being said, in peak season, Sao Miguel is a fantastic beach destination with some stunning sandy beaches you can enjoy if time allows, which is why I believe that July to September is the best time to visit the Azores. I don't know why, but that came as a surprise to me! During our week there, on most days weather was good enough to head out to a beach, but with all the other things on the list, we just didn't get a chance to. The beaches are mostly on the untouched side - i.e. don't expect sun loungers and parasols - and the ones I saw didn't have much shade, so I would recommend bringing your own small parasol.
If you don't want to go on organised tours, you will struggle to get around the island without renting a car or a scooter. The public bus system of Sao Miguel isn't geared towards moving tourists around and the buses aren't frequent or speedy. There is one interesting alternative to public buses during the peak season (July-September) - the hop on hop off bus with two circular routes from Ponta Delgada, to Sete Cidades and Fogo/Caldeira Velha/Ribeira Grande. Please check this booklet for the full routes and schedules.
Parking at the main tourist attractions of Sao Miguel can be a real pain. You can tell that the infrastructure wasn't built to accommodate the large number of tourists with rental cars that have started to gravitate to this beautiful island - there just aren't enough parking spots plus the parking areas themselves are often tight and difficult to manoeuvre around. People resort to just leaving their cars on the sides of the mountain roads, which is far from ideal as it creates problems for those who are driving by. So if you want to make sure you get a parking spot, set off early. This is the parking area for a viewing point over Sete Cidades:
And speaking of driving in general, the roads in Sao Miguel are rather narrow, especially in towns. Motorways are great and there is little traffic, but once you drive into a town, be prepared for some millimetre-precise navigation to pass the oncoming cars as well as pedestrians walking on the - you guessed it - extremely narrow sidewalk sections. So pick a small rental car, especially if you are not a confident driver. Just so you have an idea, a photo of a street in Ponta Delgada:
Not that any of that made my stay in Sao Miguel any less enjoyable - I still loved every minute we spent there and would happily go back anytime! However, with all of the above in mind, I would love to see Sao Miguel develop the public transportation system to reduce the need for getting rental cars. And now on to the detailed guide to the sights of Sao Miguel.
Whale Watching Ponta Delgada
Whale watching in the Azores is a big thing and of course is one of the activities in Sao Miguel island - for us, it's one of the key reasons we wanted to go to the Azores. Though the best time for whale watching overall is spring, you can check this brilliant blog for a handy chart with species by month. Of course, no matter what time of the year you go, a sighting isn't guaranteed, so my advice would be to plan a whale watching tour for the beginning of your vacation - this way, if you don't spot anything on the first try, you have plenty of time to book another tour.
There are a few different companies offering whale watching tours from Ponta Delgada and two different ways you can do a tour - on a small Zodiac boat or on a bigger boat/catamaran. Whilst the smaller boats may be more agile, they are also bumpy and not recommended for people with back problems, plus of course there is no toilet on board, which might become a problem with 3-4 hours on board. So we chose a bigger boat and went with a company receiving brilliant reviews on TripAdvisor - Moby Dick Tours. Incidentally, they are also the cheapest, charging €35 compared to €50+ from other providers (price correct as of August 2017). You can ask to reserve a spot through the contact form on their website and pay in cash on the day of the tour.
I have a tumultuous relationship with boats and the last boat trip I took didn't end well, which you already know if you read my review of Los Arcos, Las Animas & Quimixto tour in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. This time I came prepared, having taken a seasickness pill and wearing anti-travel-sickness bracelets and am happy to report that I felt great throughout the tour. If you know you are prone to seasickness, please do make sure you take your medicine as the ocean does get choppy (if you forget though, there are vomit bags available on board).
The was no briefing and once everyone was on board, we set off in search of whales straight away. The captain (who is also the owner the company) will go around at the end of the tour while the boat is heading back to the harbour and explain what the typical species are for that area and what you saw on the day. He is very passionate about his job and that passion comes across when he talks. During our tour, we saw a mama bryde whale with its baby (not typical for August, the captain said she must have stayed behind to feed the baby some more) and a large group of dolphins who were really excited about the waves the boat was creating and came very close. It was a very enjoyable afternoon, but also surprisingly exhausting - I didn't think I would feel that tired from just being on a boat! So don't plan anything strenuous for after the whale watching tour - you might just want to go back to your hotel and relax for a bit.
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Azores and a brilliant place to make your base for the vacation on Sao Miguel. It is located very close to the airport, which makes arrival and departure days that much easier. The fact that it's the largest town on the island means it's got lots of restaurants and shops to keep you happy between hikes and tours. It also has more hotels to choose from, with both high-end and more affordable options. We stayed at and can recommend Neat Hotel Avenida - click here for the full hotel review.
But even if you ignore all the convenience factors, Ponta Delgada is a beautiful city, so I recommend dedicating at least a day to exploring it. There are a lot of things to do in Ponta Delgada and some places you could visit are:
Forte de Sao Bras - a fort from the 16th century, now housing a military museum.
The central area with the city gates (Portas de Cidade) and church of St. Sebastian.
The yacht harbour is pretty and has a nice stretch of restaurants and a public swimming area. That's also where the whale watching tours depart from, if you're doing one.
Jardim Antonio Borges is a beautiful botanical garden that is free of charge to enter. There are a few other gardens you can visit as well for a small fee (Jardim Jose do Canto and Jardins de Sant'Ana (for the latter you will need to have your passport with you as the palace in the gardens is a governmental building.
Gruta do Carvao volcanic caves - you can only visit with a tour at certain times in the day, so plan your visit in advance.
Sete Cidades (or The Seven Cities) is an absolutely iconic place on Sao Miguel. There are several beautiful lakes to admire in this area, the most famous of which are in the photo above - Lagoa Verde (green) and Lagoa Azul (blue) - named after the colour of the water. It's a great area for outdoor activities - hiking, cycling, kayaking, paddle boarding and swimming are some of the things you can get up to here. We swam in Lagoa Azul, and even though the water was on the chilly side, it was tons of fun! Even if you don't fancy any strenuous activities like water sports or hiking in the Azores, you should at least drive by Sete Cidades and take in the views - which can be done from several viewing points.
Miradouro da Vista do Rei viewing point is great because not only do you get a fantastic view of the lakes, but also a chance to explore the abandoned hotel Monte Palace (at your own risk and you do need to be very careful and watch where you're going as the building is pretty dilapidated and not getting any better with time). Monte Palace was a 5-star hotel that opened its doors in 1989 and closed them again in 1990 having gone bankrupt. At first the disused building had security people guarding it, but after money ran out, it was left open to the elements and the vandals and today there is very little left of its 5-star glory. If you are interested in the history of this building, I encourage you to watch this video, which showcases a brilliant collection of old photos. I was absolutely fascinated by this derelict building and don't know whether to be sad or rejoice about the news that they are planning to rebuild and reopen the hotel.
If you continue from Miradouro da Vista do Rei down towards Sete Cidades, you will soon come across another viewing point, Miradouro do Cerrado das Freiras, which shows the lakes from a different perspective - also a photo-worthy stop. Shortly after that, there is a viewing point overlooking a different lake - Miradouro da Lagoa de Santiago.
Once you are in the town of Sete Cidades, you can stop off for lunch. There aren't many restaurants here (we only found three) and one of them, Green Love, wins on location - it's right by the lake and you can take in the views while you eat.
On the way back, take the road towards Lagoa do Canario - if you turn off the main road towards Lagoa do Canario and drive a bit along a narrow dirt road, you can then park and make your way on foot up to Miradouro da Boca do Inferno for another stunningly beautiful photo opportunity - it's a bit of a climb, but don't give up as the view is worth it!
Furnas and Poça da Dona Beija Thermal Spa
Furnas is an area of Sao Miguel known for its abundant hot springs. There are three parts to your visit to Furnas:
Lagoa das Furnas (the lake) and the Fumarolas (hot springs where the famous cozido stew is cooked over volcanic heat) - when you get here, you pay a small fee to park up your car and then you can go and explore the small area around the hot springs, with bubbling water and lots of steam coming out of the ground. You may be able to see how the pots of stew are being placed in or taken out of the soil to provide cozido to the different restaurants in the area. You can also hike around the lake - apparently, they are doing a lot to improve the water quality in the lake, which has suffered somewhat over the years.
The town of Furnas has outdoor thermal spas you can bathe in - Poça da Dona Beija (check their website for prices and opening hours) and Terra Nostra, which is also a garden (website here). We were pressed for time, so could only choose one spa to visit and went for Poça da Dona Beija. It is very picturesque, with several small pools, one of which is slightly cooler than all the rest due to a cool stream coming into it. Don't wear your best bikini to this spa (to be fair, same advice would apply to Terra Nostra) - the minerals in the water leave orange-brownish stains that I haven't been able to wash out completely. Please also note that towels, lockers and a warm shower have to be paid for separately - a lot of people don't bother with the lockers and just use the baskets provided free of charge to carry their things around and leave the baskets by the pool when going in. If you get hungry, there is a Chinese restaurant right next to Poça da Dona Beija that also serves - you guessed it - the traditional local cozido stew!
When you are done in Furnas, rather than going back the same way to Ponta Delgada, drive in the direction towards Ribeira Grande and you will be able to take a detour to Miradouro do Pico do Ferro viewing point - you will get a stunning view over the lake and the town of Furnas.
Lagoa do Fogo
Lagoa do Fogo (or Fire Lake) is a stunningly beautiful crater lake, which is also the highest lake in Sao Miguel. Though you can see it from several viewing points on the road connecting Ponta Delgada/Ribeira Grande via Caldeira Velha hot springs, the only way to actually reach Lagoa do Fogo is on foot.
Hiking in the Azores is a popular activity and can be done both as a guided hike and on your own - there are no dangerous animals on Sao Miguel island, so it's all safe and the trails are well-marked. We booked a guided Lagoa do Fogo hike run by Fun Activities and were lucky enough to be the only people on the tour. The guide (who was great by the way!) picked us up from the hotel in a car and we drove to the starting point of the walk. The good thing about being the only people on the tour was that the hike could easily be adjusted to suit our fitness level (which is not bad, but not great either). We ended up doing a medium-difficulty circular hike, reaching the Lagoa do Fogo at the midpoint of the tour and going for a swim to cool off before finding a good spot for the picnic lunch. It was mostly uphill on the way to the lake and then flat/downhill from then on, with part of the trail going along a levada and being well-shaded. The hike offered tons of fantastic photo spots and we learned a lot about the local endemic plants (as well as some invasive species) and it was also great to chat to the guide about the local life. By the end of the tour we were knackered, but happy we did it.
For hiking trails on Sao Miguel (and more information about hiking in the Azores), including printable trail .pdf files, check out the Visit Azores website. Keen photographers like us shouldn't forget to factor in all their photo stops, which drastically increases that estimated average time to complete the hike.
Ilheu de Vila Franca
Ilheu de Vila Franca is a small islet off the coast of Sao Miguel and due to its lovely crater shape, it forms a sort of natural but perfectly round swimming pool with shallow waters flanked by rocky sides for sunbathing. From June to mid-October the islet can be visited by up to 400 people per day for swimming and snorkelling - there is a ferry service running between Vila Franca do Campo and the islet. Mind you, they say ferry, but what it actually is is a small motor boat. I found snorkelling at Ilheu de Vila Franca brilliant - I am not a confident swimmer, so the enclosed shallow area made me feel a lot safer than being in the open sea. And whilst it's not absolutely swarming with fish, you will find different species if you swim around a bit.
If you want to get ferry tickets to Ilheu de Vila Franca, everyone will tell you to buy them online on the website of the Cruzeiro do Ilheu. Except what they won't tell you is that the only people who can actually buy the tickets online are those with a Portuguese bank account, as you can't pay for the ticket online with your credit/debit card (at least you couldn't at the time of our visit in August 2017). You don't find that out until you fill in all the information needed to reserve a ticket and click submit, so what happens is that all the tickets gets reserved online very quickly, but then people can't pay for them, so they get released the next day - so don't be discouraged if you see no spaces left for the following few days - that doesn't reflect reality.
Since online reservation doesn't work in practice, the only way to get tickets for non-Portuguese residents is by visiting the ticket booth in the harbour of Vila Franca do Campo, which opens at 9:30am. We arrived an hour before the booth opened to find a small queue of people already there. Over the next hour that we spent sitting on the asphalt in the scorching sun the queue grew massively, so really your options are to either arrive extra early like we did or face the risk that you might not get tickets if you come later.
Even before the ticket booth opened, we noticed that the queue began to split up as some people apparently knew where the ferry would be departing from and formed a queue there too. A clever idea, given that the ferry will fit about 30 people tops (maybe even fewer!), so if you want to get on the first one out, you have to be at the front of the queue.
If you arrive at Ilheu de Vila Franca on the first ferry, the natural pool will be very very shallow with even a bit of a sandy beach on one side, but the water will start to rise very quickly and all of the beach will get submerged, so don't leave your stuff there. There is little shade on the island, so bringing your own parasol is highly recommended. If you are planning to stay there for a longer period of time, you will also need to bring your own food and drinks as there are no shops or cafes on the islet. Finally, if you don't have your own snorkelling gear, but would like to use it, you will need to rent it before getting to the islet - no equipment rent here either. There is however a lifeguard on duty and toilets!
Gorreana Tea Plantation
Here's an interesting fact - Sao Miguel has the only tea plantation in Europe, called Cha Gorreana and cultivating tea since the 19th century. A lot of the cafes and restaurants on the island serve Gorreana black and green tea, so you will have plenty of chances to try it. If you are interested in tea, you can come and visit the plantation (which offers free tea tasting) and of course you can buy some tea to take home either in the factory shop or in a supermarket. They have both teabags and loose leaf tea, so you will definitely find a variety you like. I am obsessed with tea, so of course we had to do all of the above.
If you do choose to visit the plantation, there is also a hiking route to explore here if you fancy a walk - we unfortunately only had time so a short stop after a day out at Furnas, plus it kept starting to rain, so wasn't really walking weather anyway.
So this is it - what I managed to cover in a week in Sao Miguel summed up with all the tips I could think of. I hope this has given you plenty of information to plan your trip to Sao Miguel and I am sure you will love the island as much as I do after your vacation.
If you are looking for a place to stay, do have a read through my review of Neat Hotel Avenida and also check out my guide to Portuguese food, which has some handy restaurant recommendations for Sao Miguel.
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